Australia's 'Rohingya' refugee in Cambodia wrongly identified, returns to Myanmar
By Lindsay Murdoch
November 24, 2015
Phnom Penh: Mohammed Ibrahim took time off selling warm roti on the crowded streets of the Cambodian capital to greet a fellow Rohingya man who was arriving in the country under Australia's controversial $55 million agreement to resettle refugees from Nauru.
|Phnom Penh. Cambodia is still a poor country. Photo: AP|
Mr Ibrahim felt empathy for the single man in his early 20s who had decided to abandon hopes of reaching Australia to take a one-way ticket to one of the world's poorest nations.
"I want to help him ... life is very difficult for us here," he said, as he waited at the gate of Phnom Penh's airport on a stifling hot morning in June.
But the man and three other Iranian refugees – the first and only group so far to arrive from Nauru – were whisked past him in a van and taken to a luxury villa in a Phnom Penh suburb.
Over the following weeks 32-year-old Mr Ibrahim made repeated attempts to contact the newly arrived Rohingya, including asking the Australian embassy to arrange a meeting, but was blocked each time.
|Cambodia-based Mohammed Ibrahim sought in vain to meet the "Rohingya" man brought from Nauru to Phnom Penh. Photo: Lindsay Murdoch|
Mr Ibrahim says he became increasingly worried that something was amiss, amid reports the man was unhappy living in Phnom Penh, despite being showered with Australian taxpayer-provided benefits, and wanted to return to Myanmar.
"I couldn't work out why he wouldn't want to meet other Rohingya here," he says.
"It took me a long time to realise the truth."
Fairfax Media can reveal that the refugee was wrongly assessed as a Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar, as Australian immigration officials on Nauru were trying to convince hundreds of other refugees and asylum seekers on the Pacific island to take up the Cambodian offer.
Under the agreement Cambodia has agreed to accept only people assessed as refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries.
The so-called "Rohingya" man left Cambodia in mid-October after his father had flown to Phnom Penh to back his son's new claim that he was not a Rohingya, but in fact a Burmese Muslim.
Myanmar's government does not recognise Rohingya, claiming they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, despite hundreds of thousands of them having lived in the country's western Rakhine state for centuries.
Myanmar routinely refuses to allow Rohingya to return to the country.
Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton declined to comment on the man's wrongful assessment.
His spokesperson said Nauru is responsible for determining the refugee claims of asylum seekers on the island, referring to Australian-trained and assisted assessors.
Shyla Vohra, deputy secretary of Nauru's Department of Justice and Border Control, said identities claimed by asylum seekers on Nauru are tested in accordance with accepted international practice.
"We note that many Rohingya will use a Burmese alias when in Myanmar," she said.
Phil Robertson, director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said there is no way the refugee could have gone back to Myanmar "unless he was not really Rohingya".
"So it's a fair question whether Australia fudged this guy's claim over into the refugee category, to bolster the numbers for its failing Cambodia refugee return scheme," he said.